WHEN I was asked to look at what constitutes a hidden gem the first conclusion I reached was that when it is revealed to the wider public it is, by definition, no longer ‘hidden’.
Obviously, locals know all about these courses and some may even be reluctant to share them because when word gets out members could soon find themselves battling with visitors for tee times.
Quite clearly, the likes of St Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie, Wentworth, Celtic Manor, The Belfry, Turnberry, Muirfield and Royal Birkdale would never feature in such a list because they are all so familiar to us even if we have never played them.
To qualify as a hidden gem we are talking about courses that the majority of us have never heard of but take our collective breath away when we see and play them for the first time. You know you are playing such a course because you don’t ever want the round to come to an end.
And when you do come off the 18th green, you stop and look back over the course you have just played. When you get into the clubhouse you relive every shot – and you can’t wait to tell all your friends about your experience.
So whilst, in the digitial era, there may no longer be any true hidden gems, below may provide some additional ideas of courses that really ought to be on your wish list beyond the biggest names – courses that will leave you wanting to go back for more.
South of England
To start I have to pick out Old Thorns in Hampshire. I have played here and, for me, it ticks all the boxes to be in this list. It is tucked away and comes as a real surprise, boasting fabulous accommodation and an absolutely spectacular parkland golf course. I have reviewed it and I have told everybody I know all about it. I make no apologies for singing its praises once again.
Littlestone in Kent lies on the coast with views of the English Channel at every turn. The bunkers and original layout were the work of James Braid and Alister MacKenzie was responsible for a redesign in 1924. A true links, it has hosted qualifying for The Open.
There are countless courses you really should visit in the East of England, and a whole host of them would qualify for this list. Royal Cromer boasts stunning views out to sea and sandy beaches and the golf is a mix of links and heathland, with awesome elevation changes. Or what about Aldeburgh? It is “only” a par 68 and has no par fives, but it is one of THE great tests, featuring narrow gorse-lined fairways and four wonderful par threes.
Broadstone Golf Club in Dorset has been compared to Sunningdale. High praise indeed for this beautiful Harry Colt-designed course that features lots of undulations and beautiful views over the surrounding countryside.
Head to neighbouring Devon and you simply must visit Saunton Golf Club which features two of the finest links courses in England.
Harry Colt was also responsible for designing Trevose in Cornwall. Another links course, it boasts fine coastal views, massive bunkers and lightning-fast greens.
Midlands & North of England
There are many gems in the East Midlands, a part of country not generally considered when golfers are thinking about breaks. Worksop, where Lee Westwood learnt his trade, is a fabulous test, as is Lindrick. But the pick of the bunch might well be Notts Golf Club, which is a mix of heathland and woodland and dates back to 1887. Firm and fast in the summer, it is a long undulating and well-bunkered course that features a lot of heather. Avoid it at all costs.
Little Aston in the West Midlands has hosted the English Amateur Championship and the Brabazon Trophy. It is a parkland course featuring deep bunkers and fabulous greens.
Fulford Golf Club is one of the most spectacular courses in Yorkshire. But it was also the venue for 23 consecutive European Tour events in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, with winners including Lee Trevino, Sam Torrance and Greg Norman. It was also the course where Bernhard Langer famously climbed a tree to play a short approach shot.
Ganton Golf Club in North Yorkshire could be mistaken for a heathland course but is actually defined as an inland links, located nine miles from the coast. James Braid, JH Taylor and Alister MacKenzie all had a hand in its evolution. It is a course that features plenty of bunkers and demands accuracy from the tee.
Where to start with the North West of England? Home of courses such as Royal Birkdale, Royal Lytham and Hoylake, there are many other fine layouts in the area. Southport and Ainsdale is a must-visit and Hillside was brought to a wide public audience when it hosted the British Masters in 2019. Unusually, this links course is lined by pine trees.
As somebody who was born north of the border, I am clearly biased, but where do you begin with Scotland?
Starting at the Home of Golf, St Andrews is worth another look. Most golfers who visit the Auld Grey Toon obviously want to play the Old Course, which is arguably the most iconic links on the planet. But there are a host of courses here. Some people say that the New Course is actually a better test. And then there is the Eden, which is a wonderful links. But how many people have heard of the Eden?
Ayrshire is home to the likes of Turnberry, Royal Troon and the legendary Prestwick. But don’t visit this part of God’s country without playing the fabulous Western Gailes, a thing of rare natural beauty that runs between the railway line and the west coast. And rather than forking out a fortune to play Royal Troon, why not head to Kilmarnock (Barassie), or Lochgreen and Ayr Belleisle, two of the best municipal courses you will ever play?
Glasgow is home to many wonderful courses but the best may well be Pollok, which is a beautiful parkland course that was designed by Alister MacKenzie. It features many narrow, tree-lined fairways, with the River Kelvin coming into play.
When you think of the Edinburgh area you are likely to bring to mind Muirfield, Gullane and North Berwick, but what about Dunbar or Kilspindie? Get on the road to St Andrews but take the turn-off to Lundin Links – there may be a better natural links/parkland golf course somewhere in Scotland but if there is I haven’t played it.
Head north to the Aberdeen area and you come across Cruden Bay, which was home to the legendary Scottish golfer Eric Brown. It features lots of sand dunes and blind shots played to tricky but beautiful greens. It was established in 1899.
Wales boasts many fine courses. Everybody has heard of Celtic Manor, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 2010, but what about Pennard Golf Club? Designed by James Braid, it is one of the oldest courses in Wales and its clifftop location overlooks the sea, which guarantees some spectacular views along with some stunning golf holes.
And then there is Anglesey Golf Club. Dating back to 1914 it was originally designed by Harold Hilton. The requirements of the Royal Air Force meant that the course lost 14 of its original holes in 1943. It was later redesigned and 14 magnificent new holes were built.
County Louth (Baltray) is the course on which Shane Lowry won the Irish Open way back in 2009 while he was still an amateur. The fairways are generous but you must avoid the deep riveted bunkers. Measuring more than 7,000 yards, it is a proper test. And this being Ireland, you know that you can be sure of a warm welcome.